Reconnecting with the ancients in Athens

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Glenda C. Booth

On top of the Acropolis in Athens, Greece, the wind was gusting so hard that parents grasped their children's wrists to anchor the little ones, as jackets billowed and hats sailed away.

When the dust swirling around the ruins made me "achoo" loudly, a woman nearby responded, "Zeus bless you!" Zeus blessed me many times over in Athens, as I peeled away layers of history in this sprawling, bustling city of five million people.

Athensinitially comes across as a grungy, greedy, polluted, traffic-clogged mob scene with hawkers of "authentic artifacts" on every corner preying on the naïve tourist.

To get to the essence of Athens, tourists must sift through the plastic figurines, pseudo-marble knickknacks and fake pottery, to probe multiple eras of civilization in this, Europe's oldest and very seductive city.

In studying Athens' countless archaeological sites, you will revisit your college art history and mythology classes and be reminded of some of Washington, D.C.'s, renowned edifices. After all, Greece claims to be the basis of Western civilization.

Getting oriented

"Everything started here," one guide touted. And the ruins that remain are a testament. The Athens metropolis sprawls over 160 square miles, but the most famous sites are clustered around the Acropolis, and visitors can take in most of the city's ancient highlights on foot or via the sleek, efficient subway built for the 2004 Olympic games.

Syntagma Squareand its subway station is a good central base. The Acropolis is always a helpful orientation landmark because it is visible from most places. Greeks say Acropolis means "high city." One tour guide proclaimed, "Every great city has an acropolis."

The heart of the city, the Plaka, is busy tourist central, a walkable warren of narrow streets threading through back-to-back hotels, cafés, bars, tavernas, shops and eager souvenir hawkers. It's the most atmospheric part of Athens.

There are many spots where you can sip retsina or ouzo and watch the human traffic stroll by, as you relax to a strumming guitar or lively bouzouki.

Prepare to visit the Acropolis several times. When I arrived in my hotel room, fatigued by a long flight, I opened the curtains for some natural light and low and behold, there was the Acropolis, looming above and gleaming in the sunset's golden light.

It was a pinch myself moment. And I had to pinch myself again the next day, when I climbed up to it on foot.

On top, the Parthenon — the main temple of the goddess Athena — stands sentinel. Its design is an optical illusion. It appears to be straight lines, but actually, the building leans inward. Completed in 438 B.C.E., it signifies the glory of ancient Greece, an example of the colossal buildings that announced the country's might and importance.

Engineers still marvel at the massive Doric columns — how did the builders get 20-ton marble blocks up there? They do know that the Greeks used the first crane in the world to hoist up building materials, cranes that used linen ropes and iron pulleys.

Yellowed by time, acid rain and pollution, the Parthenon is undergoing a restoration that began in 1975 and could be finished by 2020, using the same type of Pentelic marble.

Also on the Acropolis is the Erechtheion, the temple that housed the cults of Athena, Poseidon and Erichthonius. It is famous for the six columns of maidens, the Caryatids, that support the southern portico. The temples' supports today are plaster casts and, except for the one that Lord Elgin took, the originals are in the Acropolis Museum.

The open air theater at the base of the Acropolis is a good example of the ancient theaters common in most ancient Greek cities. This one is famous for its acoustics and has hosted performances by Maria Callas, the Bolshoi Ballet, Pavarotti and Yani, for example.

Acropolis and archeology museums

Sitting in the shadow of the Acropolis, at the foot of the hill, is the must-see crown jewel of the city: the new three-level, $180 million Acropolis Museum.

During construction, excavators unearthed the remains of an ancient city, and designers incorporated the ruins in the design by displaying them under a glass walkway.

With ample natural lighting, the museum showcases the remaining treasures of the Acropolis. Here you'll see the Parthenon's frieze, that is, the pieces Lord Elgin did not ship back to England in 1801.

The top floor displays the frieze as it appeared on the Parthenon, with empty spaces for the missing pieces. Professional archaeologists guide visitors through one-of-a-kind collections.

Devote at least half a day to the 10,000-square-foot National Archaeology Museum, an exploration of many eras through exhibits including pre-historic objects, Greek sculpture from the 8th century B.C.E. to the end of the 4th century C.E., Geometric pottery, Minoan frescoes, Egyptian artifacts and one of the largest bronze collections in the world. There's a café and garden for lunch and snacks.

Though "modern" — built between 1836 and 1842 — the Parliament House at Syntagma Square offers free entertainment: the changing of the presidential guard orevzones, handsome, stone-faced young men wearing kilts and pom-pom boots. Every hour they mesmerize onlookers in a high-stepping ceremony.

Behind the building are the National Gardens, a 40-acre respite from the city's frenetic streets with more than 40,000 plants from all over the world.

Even if you are not a Hellenophile, polytheist, antiquity historian, mythology geek or fan of Homer, you'll find plenty to see and do in Athens. Other choices: Athens' first cemetery, Hadrian's Arch, the Byzantine and Christian Museum, the Jewish Museum, the Islamic Art Museum, the Maria Callas Museum, Turkish baths, a planetarium and more.

Time out for tavernas

Once you've had a Greek salad in Greece you'll turn up your nose at the lame imitations served in American restaurants. Perfectly ripe tomatoes drip with flavor, slabs of fresh feta tantalize the taste buds, and smooth, viscous olive oil seems freshly pressed.

Friendly, al fresco, no-frills tavernas are everywhere, although some have brash maitre d's too eager for your business.

Greek chefs know how to bring out the best of fresh Mediterranean flavors. Think oregano, garlic, lemon and olive oil drizzled generously. Try grilled fish, skewered chicken, eggplant salad, pita bread, spinach pies, pastitsio, fried cheese saganaki, moussaka, souvlaki and cuttlefish. You might even be offered sheep testicles.

Don't leave Greece without trying the creamy, thick yogurt with yummy swirls of local honey and of, course, indulge in some decadent baklava.

The Athens subway is reliable and clean, and many stations feature archaeology exhibits. The construction of the system turned into a huge archaeological dig, and many of the treasures that builders happened upon are displayed in metro stations. All stations also feature art by leading Greek artists.

There are plenty of tours in Athens that you can schedule once you arrive. Check out www.athenswalkingtours.gr for guided walks of the Acropolis, Roman and Ottoman monuments, and other sites. Its Acropolis and city tour costs $40.

CHAT tours (www.chatours.gr/company.asp) offers Athens highlights and Athens at night by bus ($87), as well as many tours around the country to famous ancient sites. Many of the guides are trained, well-informed archaeologists or historians.

If you go

Athensis notorious for its sweltering summer heat and air pollution. The average daytime temperature for July is a humid 93 degrees F. The number of days exceeding 100 degrees F appears to be increasing dramatically, according to Science Daily.

Spring and fall are the best times to go and some say that April to mid-June is perfect. Second best is September and October. Remember that in the height of summer it feels like all of Europe is descending on Athens, heading for the famed Greek islands.

The least expensive Washington-area roundtrip fares to Athens in November are from Dulles International Airport and start around $850 on both Delta and KLM. Once in Athens, the easiest, cheapest way to get to and from the airport is by subway.

The Plaka district is crammed with hotels of all price ranges.

The Plaka Hotel (www.plakahotel.gr) is centrally located and near the Syntagma metro station, the Parliament and shopping districts. It has a pleasant rooftop garden, perfect for Acropolis gazing and evening cocktails. The rate through March for a double room is $125; from April through October it's $189. Rates include all taxes and breakfast.

The Electra Hotel (www.electrahotels.gr /electra-hotel-athens) is another reasonably priced, centrally located option. In November, double rooms start at $184 per night; in the summer they are $252.

Useful websites for pre-trip planning are www.cityofathens.gr/en and www.athensguide.org/athens-tourist-information.html.

Glenda C. Booth is a travel writer who lives in Alexandria, Va.